Thursday, May 21, 2015

Will There Be an Institute for Black History and Culture in Paris?

During the City of Paris' May 10th commemoration of the slave trade, slavery, and their abolition, two speakers at the ceremony - Claude Ribbe, president of l'Association des Amis du Général Alexandre Dumas, and Louis-Georges Tin, president of the Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires (CRAN) - spoke of a proposal to use a building called Hôtel Gaillard to house an institute for black history and culture and a museum devoted to the remembrance of slavery and colonization. Earlier that day, at the national day of remembrance ceremony at the Luxembourg Garden, Prime Minister Manual Valls expressed the possibility that the building could be used for this purpose.

Banque de France
© Discover Paris

CRAN, le Comité d'Organisation 10 mai (Organization Committee for May 10), and two unions - the Union Syndicale Solidaires and the CGT (French unions) - sponsored and distributed a document at the ceremony, which states that the financial origins of the Banque de France are steeped in the slave trade. The document names several original members who were slavers, arms dealers, and shareholders in the slave trading company called Compagnie des Indes, and states that the bank recuperated the funds from the Compagnie des Indes when it was dissolved. Because of this history, the sponsors of the document call specifically for Banque de France to make reparations for slavery.

(French president Francois Hollande has already rejected the call for France to make financial reparations, similar to those made to the orphans of French Jews deported during World War II.)

Owned by Banque de France, Hôtel Gaillard has been empty for several years. Ironically, it is located on place du Général Catroux, the site of the City of Paris' commemoration ceremony.  Place du Général Catroux was formerly known as the place des Trois Dumas due to the statues honoring three generations of Dumas that stand on the square.

Thomas Alexandre-Dumas, the first Afro-Antillean general in France, was born a slave. He served in Napoleon’s army from 1786 to 1801.

Monument to General Thomas-Alexander Dumas
© Discover Paris!

The monument to General Dumas, erected in 2009, replaces one that was erected in the same spot in 1913 and was melted down during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Original statue of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas

Two other statues on the square honor the general’s son, Alexandre Dumas, père, and his grandson, Alexandre Dumas, fils. Both were acclaimed authors.

Statue of Alexandre Dumas, père
© Discover Paris!

Statue of Alexandre Dumas, fils
© Discover Paris!

The question of reparations was broached in a recent article in the French newspaper Le Monde, which discussed the inauguration of the first site on French territory dedicated to the history of slavery. Called Le Memorial ACTe, it is located in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. President François Hollande presided over the ceremony on May 10, 2015 and was therefore not available for the national remembrance ceremony in Paris. This is why Prime Minister Valls spoke at the Luxembourg Garden ceremony that day.

The article poses the following question with regard to the placement of Le Memorial ACTe in Guadeloupe:

If the memorial is to symbolically compensate for a wrong, shouldn't it have been constructed at the place where the crime originated and on the soil of those who profited from it - in other words, in metropolitan France?

It goes on to quote Myriam Cottias, president of France's National Committee for the Remembrance and History of Slavery (Comité National pour la Mémoire et l'Histoire de l'Esclavage - CNMHE) as saying:

We cannot be content to act as though this history concerns only the descendants of slaves. It is not an epiphenomenon; it is a very important episode of the history of all of France. Beginning in the 17th century, the wealth of the country was built upon it.

The article refers to the memorial to the abolition of slavery, which was inaugurated in Nantes in 2012, as "opening the way" for the site in Guadeloupe. In addition to the memorial, Nantes has devoted twelve of the thirty-two rooms of its municipal history museum to information and artifacts pertaining to the slave trade; seven of these twelve rooms are completely devoted to the subject. Along the 1.5 km (0.9 mile) route between the museum and the memorial, the city has erected eleven illustrated panels that present the history of Nantes’ slave trade.

A proposal is currently being considered for the conversion of Hôtel Gaillard into a Cité d'Economie et de la Monnaie, the mission of which would be to educate the French public about economics, money, and finance. The document that was distributed at the City of Paris commemoration ceremony submits that Banque de France should cede the building and finance its conversion into a center for black history and culture.


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